The Hidden Environmental Costs Of The Impending Ukraine Conflict

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Nobody wants war. Well, almost nobody. Power-hungry political leaders, the less scrupulous defense contractors, and others who have something to gain, they like war. Many of the rest of us feel the need to support warfare only when it aims to protect the innocent, but that doesn’t mean we like it. The death, the destruction, and the disruption (including hidden environmental costs) are all things we’d rather not see, especially if it’s our loved ones experiencing the worst of it. So if we can avoid it, we should.

The Obvious Environmental Costs

On top of the human costs, all military conflicts have known environmental impacts that affect both humans and ecosystems, and they’re not small. The Conflict and Environment Observatory lays out most of the costs here. They can vary a lot because wars can be brief or long, and the tactics militaries choose can be minimal or highly destructive.

Vehicles are a big contributor to environmental impacts. Warplanes consume almost unfathomable amounts of fuel to stay in the air, carry heavy loads, and move at high speeds. As allies respond to a potential war, there are already a lot of planes moving around burning fuel and contributing to climate change. Ground vehicles like tanks and armored personnel carriers often pass through areas vehicles don’t typically travel, and tear up the ground and vegetation as they go. Plus, they too consume a lot of fuel. And this is all before any bombs are dropped, missiles and rockets fly, or projectiles exit barrels.

When the bombs start falling, the environmental and climate devastation intensifies. Most rifle and machine gun bullets have lead cores, and slinging those everywhere pollutes the ground and eventually water. Sometimes, they have depleted uranium to pierce armor, and that gets left in the environment after a war. Large explosives can burn vegetation, release nasty chemicals when infrastructure like refineries and power plants get hit, and cause untold environmental damage when urban areas get reduced to rubble. Everything from fuel to cleaning chemicals get burnt and released into the air.

In the aftermath of a war, people will have to do whatever it takes to survive. This can include the increased use of fossil fuels and dirty generators, increased hunting beyond sustainable levels that governments usually aim for, and a complete lack of wastewater and solid waste disposal (which means trash and sewage gets left around in bad places). Agriculture and other industries get run in unsustainable and polluting ways as people struggle to get by, sometimes for years.

But readers probably already know about all of this. None of these costs are really that hidden, as they’re showing up in our social media feeds and on TV news. These environmental costs would be bad enough alone, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg this time.

The Hidden Environmental Costs of Cyberattacks

If the Ukraine crisis turns into a full-scale war, it would be a kind of warfare that we really haven’t seen before. Technology has come a long way since World War II and even the Vietnam war, and most other conflicts since then have been relatively small. No wars between major world powers have occurred since the internet became popular and even essential to everyday life. So, we really can’t just assume future wars will be anything like the big wars of the past.

One big challenge US officials are starting to really wake up to is the possibility of Russian cyberattacks. In this new world of warfare, the enemy might not have to send a single gun into your territory to hurt you in big ways.

Nobody Is Immune To These Attacks

Power grids, gas infrastructure, water infrastructure, sewer systems, mobile broadband and phone service, and many other systems are vulnerable. Aging infrastructure often relies on outdated computer systems or a patchwork of newer and older computing devices. In many cases the control computers for these systems are on the internet itself, and not “air-gapped” (not connected to the internet).

Even with air-gapping, just having one internet-connected device in the room can leave systems vulnerable to malware that uses acoustic communication or other unconventional methods to bridge the gap. This is possible in a variety of ways. Computer hardware (often assembled in mainland China) could come compromised from the factory. State-funded hackers can also intercept shipments to compromise hardware and software before it goes on to the destination. Finally, covert access to the computers to plant malware can happen either by trespassing or by compromising personnel (bribery, extortion, blackmail, etc.) and having them plant it.

Computers that have never had a physical or wireless connection to the internet (and didn’t even have the parts to make wireless connections) can appear to be perfectly secure from hackers, but after any of the above happens, they’re basically sitting and waiting for instructions via unusual radio waves, sounds (often just outside of the range of human hearing), or even infrared signals. Someone can walk into the facility with an infected phone, or somebody can park across the street and gain access, too. Nobody knows anything is going wrong until the attack happens and everything gets shut down or worse.

Finally, there’s social engineering. By pretending to be a support technician (in person, by phone, or e-mail), people can be fooled into giving hackers login credentials (user names and passwords) or other information that can be used to gain access to systems. Sending e-mail attachments with malware, sending disks or USB drives in the mail, and even walking into a place dressed like maintenance personnel or public officials are all types of social engineering attacks that can ruin even the most secure networks.

Long story short, even the most responsible and careful of critical infrastructure operators aren’t immune to cyberattacks. When you’re up against the resources of a major world power, anyone can fall prey to it. Then, the hidden environmental costs can bubble to the surface.

After The Attack

If hackers successfully attack critical infrastructure, the outcomes are not always going to be the same. In some cases, it’s possible to quickly repair the problem and get things going again. In other cases, it could be weeks or even months before the infrastructure can work again.

In Part 2, I’m going to discuss why some attacks can paralyze systems for months on end, and the environmental damage that occurs while critical systems are offline. Finally, I’m going to cover another hidden problem: the proliferation of nuclear weapons that could result from this conflict.

Featured image: A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a B-52 Stratofortress. Massive fuel use is one of the less hidden environmental costs of war. (US Air Force photo by Tiffany A. Emery) The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) visual information does not imply or constitute DOD endorsement.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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